A Salt-Atlantic Chanty

A Salt-Atlantic Chanty

This week’s choice is “A Valediction” by John Masefield which I chose from a book of his verse I found at Barter Books in Alnwick.

The bow-wash is eddying, spreading from the bows,
Aloft and loose the topsails and some one give a rouse;
A salt-Atlantic chanty shall be music to the dead,
“A long pull, a strong pull, and the yard to the masthead.”

John Masefield (1878—1967)

Poem 289. A Valediction

We’re bound for blue water where the great winds blow,
It’s time to get the tacks aboard, time for us to go;
The crowd’s at the capstan and the tune’s in the shout,
“A long pull, a strong pull, and warp the hooker out.”

The bow-wash is eddying, spreading from the bows,
Aloft and loose the topsails and some one give a rouse;
A salt-Atlantic chanty shall be music to the dead,
“A long pull, a strong pull, and the yard to the masthead.”

Green and merry run the seas, the wind comes cold,
Salt and strong and pleasant, and worth a mint of gold;
And she’s staggering, swooping, as she feels her feet,
“A long pull, a strong pull, and aft the mainsheet.”

Shrilly squeal the running sheaves, the weather-gear strains,
Such a clatter of chain-sheets, the devil’s in the chains;
Over us the bright stars, under us the drowned,
“A long pull, a strong pull, and we’re outward bound.”

Yonder, round and ruddy, is the mellow old moon,
The red-funnelled tug has gone, and now, sonny, soon
We’ll be clear of the Channel, so watch how you steer,
“Ease her when she pitches, and so-long, my dear.”

This poem is from Masefield’s first collection of verse “Salt-Water Ballads” and draws on his experience as a mariner. It’s almost like a sea-shanty itself with the repetitious nature of the last line in each stanza. You can almost hear the sailors chanting, “A long pull, a strong pull” as they haul on the lines that raise the sails or push hard at the capstan to raise the anchor.

The first stanza shows the preparations being made: “It’s time to get the tacks aboard” doesn’t refer to nails or stitches in the sails—tack in this context means “hard tack” or the ship’s biscuit: stone ground flour, water and salt mixed into a stiff dough and baked in a hot oven for half an hour, then left to harden and dry. The crowd “at the capstan” is the team of sailors whose job it is to raise the anchor by means of the rotating capstan: essentially a winch that draws in or lets out the anchor chain. To keep the action of the capstan even, a shanty would be sung or chanted—“the tune’s in the shout” and the other crew members help the ship pull away smoothly by “warping it out”—moving the ship by means of ropes looped around posts on the quay.

The second stanza shows us the ship pulling away from the quay, a wave “spreading from the bows” as the order is given to the sailors to go aloft (clamber up the rigging) and loose the topsails (loosen the reef bands that keep them from expanding to their full size) that are the main drivers of a square-rigged sailing ship while another shanty helps to time the crew pull the topsails taut and “the yard to the masthead”—the yard being the horizontal pole to which the square topsail is attached.

In the third stanza, the sails are pulling the ship and the sea is running alongside the hull with the wind breathing its cold and salty air over the crew and the excitement of starting a voyage is “worth a mint of gold,” the ship shuddering and pitching as she settles into her course “she feels her feet” and the sailors pull the mainsheet (the line that controls the mainsail) to the rear of the boat.

The sails are now all nearly deployed in the fourth stanza and the wind is driving hard against the sails. We hear the noise of the wheels in the sheaves (pulley blocks), the straining of the running rigging and the hellish noise of the chains (the largest sails are controlled by chains rather than ropes, for otherwise the lines would fray and snap with the force). With the stars overhead and a morbid reminder of all the souls in Davy Jones’ Locker, the ship has set sail for its destination.

The fifth stanza really is the valediction: the tug departs and the ship is moving under its own power out through the English Channel under the red light of what I imagine is the harvest moon. The old hand tells his younger shipmate to steer carefully (the Channel is full of hazards) and to ease his grip on the tiller when the ship pitches (rocks up and down front to rear), presumably because the rudder may be damaged if held too straitly. A final farewell to England “so-long, my dear” and the ship departs.

This poem is in a collection of Masefield’s poetry I found in Barter Books in Alnwick and gladly purchased. The book runs to nearly 800 pages, so expect to see more of Mr Masefield’s verse!

I like the poem because it evokes the age of sail so wonderfully and reminds me of reading the Swallows and Amazons books and particularly Arthur Ransome’s third book in the series. “Peter Duck” chronicles an imaginary voyage to a mysterious island by the Walkers and the Blacketts accompanied by the Blacketts’ Uncle Jim and the elderly sailor Peter Duck, who knows the secret of a buried treasure. The book describes their journey in a schooner, the Wild Cat, and their struggles with the crew of the black schooner Viper, led by Black Jake.

Peter Duck and Captain Flint were at the foot of the foremast. Peter Duck took the throat halyard, Captain Flint took the peak. They hauled away and the gaff of the foresail moved slowly up above their heads. Then there was Peter Duck swigging on his halyard till he had it bar taut, throwing his weight forward and pulling in the slack, and then making fast and taking a look up the mast to see that the blocks were all but touching. Captain Flint was still hauling on the peak halyard. The gaff cocked itself up, and the big creamy sail no longer swung loose, but stiffened until the crinkles in it ran up and down instead of across. Captain Flint belayed his halyard. Then they slackened away the topping lifts, so that the weight of the boom made itself felt, and the crinkles straightened out.*

They hurried aft to the mainmast, and the peak that had been left not fully hoisted rose up and up. It stopped. Again topping lifts were slackened away and there was the mainsail really looking like a sail at last.

‘Setting nicely,’ said Peter Duck.

* ‘Belay’ means make fast. The throat is the end of the gaff nearest to the mast. The peak is the other end. – NANCY.

Peter Duck, by Arthur Ransome.

The Viper is described by a porter at their departure point as a “hooker”—not an Americanism for a prostitute, but maritime slang for a kind of schooner.


  • Read about sailing ships at Wikipedia.
  • Read about “Peter Duck” at Wikipedia.
  • Listen to Liam Neavy’s  performance on YouTube.